Communion Of Dreams


Get lucky.

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

* * * * * * *

In a fairly soul-baring piece by Emily Gould about the reality of struggling to be an ostensibly ‘successful’ writer, this should give even the most optimistic person pause:

In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

 

* * * * * * *

In a discussion over on MetaFilter, successful Science Fiction author Charlie Stross had some thoughts on the above-cited essay. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

In 2001 I had a gigantic stroke of good luck: I acquired a [good] literary agent and sold my first novel. It was about the tenth novel or novel-shaped-thing I’d written since 1990, on my own time. The advance was, eventually, $15,000 for US rights (a good first book advance in SF/F) and £3500 for UK rights. Note that a new novelist can’t get follow-on book contracts until their first book has proven itself in print — to justify the advance money the new contract will cost the publisher — so I had to keep up the freelance journalism for a few more years.

 

* * * * * * *

“A gigantic stroke of good luck.”

But Stross is a good writer, right? I mean, doesn’t he deserve his success and popularity? The meritocracy of the marketplace and all that?

Perhaps. From an NPR story the other day:

Several years ago, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically about how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance. For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn’t in fact that special.

Salganik came up with a clever experiment, one which allowed a large number of teenagers (30,000) access to several dozen songs by promising but as yet unsigned bands. The way the experiment ran created 9 different iterations of ‘reality’, to see whether the same song would become the most popular one in each test run. They didn’t. In fact, the results were wildly divergent:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Now obviously there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

 

* * * * * * *

Another comment a little after Stross’s in that MeFi discussion offered a different perspective that’s worth considering:

Emily Gould’s example is crucial because she is the primary example of a writer who had succeeded. She did everything she was supposed to do: came to NYC, produced a ton of successful content for a big brand website, then continued on her own to create a huge internet presence, and then branched out into conventional media (the NYT piece) and eventually a six-figure book deal. If you think of the thousands of writers who are racking up credit card debt writing for free or almost on free all those websites we read every day, they are trying to become Emily Gould. Regardless of what they might think of her work itself, that’s the approximate career path they’re trying to follow.

So when people are glibly like, “Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there’s your problem,” what they’re saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

Because, sure, you can say “She should never have come to New York, she should always have kept a full time job in a different profession, etc. etc.” But to work for Gawker, she had to come to New York. To gain the kind of name recognition she has, she had to work full time posting and networking and Tweeting and, basically, working for free. And when her book failed, it didn’t fail because it was “bad” – because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online. For better or for worse, that was what people liked. The real, applicable lesson is that the book failed because the people who read her stuff online didn’t care enough to pay for it in print.

 

* * * * * * *

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

I used to think that this was wrong. In fact I was quite confident that my intelligence, hard work, and focus could overcome any barrier. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things.

But I’ve seen too much life to still believe that. Yeah, I’d rather be lucky than good.

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



For What It’s Worth.

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware*

Minority Report, anyone?

When the Chicago Police Department sent one of its commanders to Robert McDaniel’s home last summer, the 22-year-old high school dropout was surprised. Though he lived in a neighborhood well-known for bloodshed on its streets, he hadn’t committed a crime or interacted with a police officer recently. And he didn’t have a violent criminal record, nor any gun violations. In August, he incredulously told the Chicago Tribune, “I haven’t done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn’t done.” Yet, there stood the female police commander at his front door with a stern message: if you commit any crimes, there will be major consequences. We’re watching you.

What McDaniel didn’t know was that he had been placed on the city’s “heat list” — an index of the roughly 400 people in the city of Chicago supposedly most likely to be involved in violent crime. Inspired by a Yale sociologist’s studies and compiled using an algorithm created by an engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the heat list is just one example of the experiments the CPD is conducting as it attempts to push policing into the 21st century.

 

Jim Downey

*



This may seem familiar.

As I’ve noted over on Facebook, sometimes it feels like I am writing a Dan Brown novel for people who actually know history and can think for themselves …

… anyway, here’s an excerpt from the end of the latest chapter I thought might amuse:

“Yeah,” said Darnell, nodding. “There were a couple of places where some standing stones had been set back into the walls. These looked like they were the same sort of stone as up at Barclodiad y Gawres, and they actually had similar markings on them. But the most curious thing was a larger standing stone in the very center of the room. This was more than a meter tall, and had a sort of bulb or sphere at the top.”

“Phallic images were fairly common …” started Megan.

“Yeah, but this didn’t really come across like that. It was more like a globe on a stand, with a very distinct spiral carved into it that started at the very top and coiled down to about where the equator would be.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. it was a different kind of stone from everything else, too. I’m not sure, but it looked to me to be the same sort of bluestone used at Stonehenge.”

“Really? That’s wild,” said Megan.

“Yeah, but the wildest part was that it felt almost … warm … to the touch. And when I did touch it, for a moment I almost thought I could hear someone talking, whispering in the distance.”

 

Heh.

 

Jim Downey



“…a carpet of shifting, building insects.”

From page 4 of Communion of Dreams:

They were, in essence, enclosing the entire planet in a greenhouse of glass fabric and golden plasteel. It was going to take generations to finish, even using mass microbots and fabricating the construction materials from the Martian sands. Tens of thousands of the specially programmed microbots, a few centimeters long and a couple wide, would swarm an area, a carpet of shifting, building insects. As each cell was finished, it was sealed, joined to the adjacent cells, and then the microbots would move on.

Those microbots play a big role in the novel, being a factor in the plot. More importantly, they are a basic part of the tech I envision for the book, accelerating our technological recovery on Earth as well as our venture into space.

Well, guess what was on the news last night:

Robot Construction Workers Take Their Cues From Termites

“We’ve created this system of multiple independent robots that build things we ask for,” says [Justin] Werfel, “and they do it more like the way insects act than the way that robots normally act.”

The robots don’t look like termites. Instead, they look more like black, mechanical beetles, about 8 inches long. They have just a few on-board sensors that let them navigate around a work site set up in a lab.

* * *

“They build things that are much larger than themselves,” says Werfel. “They climb on what they are … building to get to higher places, and they coordinate what they are doing using a tool that termites use.

“Rather than talk to one another directly, they coordinate indirectly by changing their shared environment,” he explains. “So one puts down some material, another one comes along and reacts to that material, and uses that to help it decide later whether to put more material down.”

* * *

The vision is that, someday, swarms of robots could stack up sandbags to protect against flooding, or go to Mars and build living quarters for astronauts. That’s still a long way off. But this is a proof of principle study that construction robots can work together like termites, says Hod Lipson, an engineer at Cornell University who specializes in robotics.

I love it when stuff like this happens.

 

Jim Downey



“A certain embarrassment.”

A good segment on this morning’s Weekend Edition Saturday with writer Marcel Theroux (son of Paul Theroux). I recommend the whole thing, but two particular bits stood out for me. The first is included on the ‘highlights’ page for the show:

I was trying to be as free as possible. I don’t really think about genre … to be honest. I find it constraining. And I know there’s a certain embarrassment about talking about science fiction in polite company, so some people prefer to call it “speculative fiction” instead.

 

And the second is my transcription from the actual interview (at about the 5:00 mark):

Anyone who has written a long work of fiction just knows that your mood goes up and down and at times it seems baffling and you feel that you should be doing something that is of value to the human race, not sitting on your own in a room churning out words. Or not churning out words.

 

Boy, howdy. I am happily churning out words at present, but sometimes it just feels so … self indulgent. And that doesn’t include the moments of complete panic that everyone will be disappointed in the prequel to Communion of Dreams because it isn’t science-fictiony enough or the writing isn’t any good or something.

*Sigh*

Back to work.  It’s all I can do.

 

Jim Downey



It’s not about security. It’s about abuse and incompetence.

I know sometimes people think that I am anti-government or anti-authority because I rant about infringements of our civil rights and personal liberties. I’ll cop to some of that, since I do believe that trading freedom (or even privacy) for a false security is foolish.

But more importantly, I think that the whole notion of secret courts or secret laws or secret lists are dangerous because they can be abused not due to an over-enthusiastic effort to protect the country, but because of personal grudges or to cover up incompetence. Without the ability to challenge these secret acts/actions, those abuses and incompetence cannot be brought to light and corrected. This is the perfect example of that:

The government contested a former Stanford University student’s assertion that she was wrongly placed on a no-fly list for seven years in court despite knowing an FBI official put her on the list by mistake because he checked the “wrong boxes” on a form, a federal judge wrote today.

The agent, Michael Kelly, based in San Jose, misunderstood the directions on the form and “erroneously nominated” Rahinah Ibrahim to the list in 2004, the judge wrote.

“He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote (.pdf) today.

* * *

Much of the federal court trial, in which the woman sought only to clear her name, was conducted in secret after U.S. officials repeatedly invoked the state secrets privilege and sought to have the case dismissed.

 

Doctor Ibrahim is the first person to successfully challenge in court being put on a government watch list in the US. It’s highly doubtful that she is the only one to be placed on such a list incorrectly.

National security may benefit from secret lists and hidden actions. But so does bureaucratic incompetence and hidden agendas.

 

Jim Downey



One reality or t’other.

From Chapter 3 of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of
Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-flu, with the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated.

Of course, that is the reality of St. Cybi’s Well, not our own. In our reality, there’s been no fire-flu (at least yet), Stephen Hawking is still alive, and the laws of physics are still the same.

Well, maybe

Black holes are in crisis. Well, not them, but the people who think about them, theoretical physicists who try to understand the relationship between the two pillars of modern physics, general relativity and quantum physics. Judging from the current discussions, one of the two must go, at least in their present formulation. On January 22nd, Stephen Hawking posted a paper where he bluntly stated that black holes, in the sense of being objects that can trap light and everything else indefinitely, are no more. And that’s a big deal.

Sometimes I wonder what reality I am actually plugged into, since it seems that I keep getting leaks from the other one.

 

Jim Downey



Pistyll Rhaeadr

From near the beginning of Chapter 12 of Communion of Dreams:

“I found the reference that you asked me about regarding Mr. Sidwell and Wales.”

“Oh, really? That’s faster than I expected.”

“Well, as it turns out, there are quite a few scenic waterfalls in Wales, but only one that had an inn where someone lived during that time period. I’ve uploaded some images. Would you like to see them?”

“Sure.”

The first image that filled his sight was of a great waterfall, cascading over the top of a cliff in the middle of a shallow ‘V’ between two higher hills. The stream was narrow, white with spray around the edges. Oaks and pines grew on the sides of the hills near the falls, and there was some kind of archway of rock about two thirds of the way down. Near the foot was an old iron pedestrian bridge crossing the stream.

Seth’s voice narrated. “It’s called Pistyll Rheadr, one of the ‘seven wonders of Wales’. The drop you see there is about 75 meters.”

The next image was closer to the falls, taken, Jon guessed, from the bridge. Now he could clearly see the wonderful natural stone archway, and realized that the initial drop of the falls ended in a pool just behind that, then the water spilled out under the arch for another significant drop into the main pool below. From this vantage, the spray and splash of the water glimmered in the sunlight, coating nearby rocks, feeding the ancient moss that grew there. A path was clearly visible to the right-hand side of the falls, leading up the side of the mountain.

“This next image is taken from the top of the falls. The red structure you see below the falls on the left-hand side is the inn. I have more images, if you wish to see them.”

As Seth spoke, Jon saw the wide, ‘U’ shaped valley open out before him, the falls tumbling down and away in the right foreground. The hills on either side of the valley were lightly wooded here and there, but mostly given over to pasture. On the left-hand side of the image, a narrow blacktop road wound down the valley, echoing the stream’s flow. And there, as Seth said, was the inn.

“No, thanks, Seth, I think that’s enough. Pretty place.”

“So I understand.”

“I don’t see anything particularly noteworthy about it. But it sure seemed to make an impression on Darnell.”

 

Guess what chapter I’ve just started writing in St. Cybi’s Well. ;)

All water is graceful, be it a tear or a torrent.

 

Jim Downey

PS: new review up.



You Are There.*

An excerpt:

A very short distance down the road was another simple black and white sign which said “Llangybi”. There was a stone house not far past it, but no sign of a real town. Darnell kept going. He passed a few more homes and farms. Then he came to a split in the road and stopped, pulling off to the side in front of yet another stone house. There were some workmen on scaffolding at the near end of the house, doing something to the chimney.

Workmen? What workmen?

Why, these workmen.  (It’s a Google Streetview location. You have to let it load, then activate it.)

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of double-checking of locations and descriptions using a variety of map tools. Google has made this very easy, between their satellite, Earth, and Streetview map apps. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that to amuse myself I have been including things actually caught in the Streetview images now and again, so that if anyone actually looks up a particular location I cite on Streetview, they will see what is described in the text. This has mostly applied to storefronts and the like, but also includes the occasional bit like the passage above — where a little later I have Darnell (the main character) actually stop and chat with these workmen, asking them for directions.

It’s a little thing which almost no one will ever discover, just my version of an Easter egg. And whenever Google updates the images used on these locations, they’ll no longer apply. But what the hell.

 

Jim Downey

*For those who don’t know of/remember the series.

 

 

 



Stereotomy*

For those who don’t know, one of my other interests is handgun ballistics research. Specifically, in regards to how barrel length effects bullet velocity for different cartridges and loadings. Even if you don’t like guns, the physics behind ballistic performance can be very interesting.

And here’s a wonderfully graphic image showing those physical forces:

Ruger Alaskan .44 Magnum

Text from the source to go with this image (site is Finnish, and English is not the author’s first language):

Let’s talk a bit about .44 Magnum cartridge. Despite of being very close to diameter of .45ACP the .44Mag is totally different beast. Average .45ACP round generates ~650J of hit energy while .44Mag makes easily 1600J and can be pushed much more beyond that. This specific gun however cannot utilize all potential of .44 Magnum cartridge because of very short barrel. It simply cannot burn all powder. As you can see there is huge cone shaped spray of unburnt stuff flying in the air. With longer barrel show would be different.

Ok, you may have noticed the flames. They are something we haven’t seen before. Especially when you look picture below and huge left side flame in it. Interesting thing is that major amount of the flame is escaping between cylinder and barrel. That short barrel seems to puff bullet our so fast that powder mass just flies out unignited.

The site is filled with a bunch of great high-speed camera images of guns being fired. And it also has something else which is new to me: ‘natural stereoscopic’ images of guns being fired. Like this one:

Now, what do I mean ‘natural stereoscopic’ images? Well, this is pretty cool itself. Here’s a reference link & explanation from the Kuulapaa site:

Help: How to Free-View the Stereo Pairs

Each stereo view consists of two images, one for each eye. Free viewing is the technique that will allow you to direct each of these images separately and simultaneously into each eye. Once that happens, you are said to have “fused” the pair of images into a stereo view.

At the bottom of this page a stereo pair of images is loading with which you can practice. All the stereo pairs shown on this site are in the “cross-eyed” format (my apologies to all the “wall-eyed” people). That means that the first (leftmost) image is for your right eye and the right image is for your left eye.

There are then a series of practice image to show what he means and give you a chance to develop this viewing skill. It works fairly well for me, but does tire my eye muscles fairly quickly. Give it a try and see how you do.

Jim Downey

*Couldn’t resist. Lyrics here.

Cross posted to the BBTI blog.




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